Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tasting and Savoring Your Words

Sometimes, we know what we want to say, but don't always know how to say it. If that sounds familiar, it might be because I've mentioned it before. However, there are two more techniques that can also help with these problems.

The first technique is tasting your words. This comes from a friend of mine who describes it thusly: When I 'taste my words', I mentally roll them over my tongue. Which one is right, how should I phrase this, what's a better way to say that? If something doesn't fit, I try to trim it down or replace it.

Tasting your words is useful when you are staring at a blank page and aren't sure where to start. Sometimes, though, we plow ahead and rush through a passage just to get it done. This is the dark side of "say what you're trying to say, then write it." Speech is generally more clumsy than writing. When you directly put your speech on paper, your writing bcomes clumsy. This is why you savor your words.

Whether you do this as you write or as you edit, it works the same way. Read your own words. Read them slowly. Say them out loud, or at least say them out loud in your head. Pronounce each word clearly and fully. When you do this, your natural rhythm will kick in. At that point, you will instantly feel when your writing isn't smooth. It makes you trip over yourself or it makes you take breaths in awkward places just to try to finish a sentence. Let each word take its own moment in the spotlight. If any words try to hog that light, then throw them out. No divas in your writing.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Support Structure

There is a saying that no man is an island. Most people agree with it, but some do not. I've been on both sides of the fence. I grew up without a support structure. If I had a problem, I dealt with it. I cheered myself up when I was down and amused myself when I was born. It certainly worked well enough. As I grew older, I made friends, some of whom have become very close. Now I need those friends. They provide a support structure. I may be able to get along without it, but I sure don't want to.

In terms of writing, your support structure has two tiers. The first tier is "you can do no wrong." These are the people who will cheer you on no matter what you do. They are a great ego boost and are essential for helping you get through the hard times. The second tier is "you can always do better." These are the people who love what you do and want to see you become the best in the world at it. These people will prevent you from stagnating by always challenging you to do better and helping you to accomplish it.

As I said earlier, there are plenty of people who do not need a support structure; they can get by perfectly fine on their own. That may be true. However, just because you don't need a support structure doesn't mean you can't benefit from one.

If you have people who are happy to help you, make sure they know how much you appreciate them. If you don't have those people, consider looking for them.

Nobody Craps Gold

Every part of the writing process can be difficult. Coming up with an idea, developing it, writing an outline, writing a first draft, writing all the subsequent drafts, revising, editing, and every other aspect that I skipped over all have their own set of difficulties. If you're lucky, you will only struggle on a few of them in a given project. If you're unlucky, you'll hit a brick wall every step of the way.

This is an unpleasant view of a beautiful art, but it is largely true. If you want to make something truly amazing, you're going to work for it. Nobody sits down and just craps gold. There are certain exceptions to this. Sometimes a brilliant idea just hits you. Sometimes some unknown force gives you the one piece that you needed to solve the rest of the puzzle. Whether you call this inspiration or genius or anything else, it is the same thing as a small gold nugget.

The important thing to remember, though, is that those insights are small and rare. Sometimes, the funniest line in the world comes to me. But I never have a fully-formed comic strip hit me. That requires a little more effort. And I never get more than a single scene from a story arc for free. The rest of it is my hard work.

You could be working on a novel. You could be thoroughly inspired as you write an entre chapter that is pure brilliance. However, even if you got a full chapter in one sitting, you still have the entire rest of the book to write. Don't wait for that inspiration to strike again. Work your absolute hardest or else you will never finish anything.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Don't Burn Out

Suppose you're a writer. That's great and wonderful. What are you doing to pay the bills? If your writing is paying the bills, then stop reading and I'll see you later. If not, then read on.

So you need to do a job. You're a competent writer, so the logical choice is to have a writing job. After all, you should do what you love, right? Maybe you'll be a technical writer, a copywriter, or a proofreader. Whatever the case is, you get to write and get paid for it. Ain't it great?

But consider this for a moment. If you spend 8 hours a day writing. When you go home and take a load off, what are you going to do to relax? Most likely, the answer isn't write more. You're goiong to be burned out on writing and want to do something brainless to give your mind a rest.

What would happen if you went the other way around? What if you took a mindless job? If you spend 8 hours a day lifting heavy objects or entering data into a computer, then you will get burned out on imndless activities. When you get home, your ideas will be screaming to get out.

I'm not saying that you need to pick a mindless job, or that it is better to do. Some people thrive if they are constantly using their mind. Some people lose their creativity if they spend enough time not thinking or creating. Only you can know what you should do to pay the bills. Just make sure that whatever you choose, you don't burn out.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Break the Pattern, Keep the Habit

Writing is a habit. It's something you do every day. No matter how much stuff happens, you find some time to do writing. Now, most people will tell you to establish a writing time. Some people are strict (every day, 6-8 AM) and some are loose (right before going to bed, whenever that is). This is good advice. It is the first step toward turning a hobby into a profession. It stops being something you get around to and starts being something you have to do.

These patterns are useful and productive, but not without risk. If you write before you go to bed, that means you aren't writing the whole rest of the day. You could potentially be sitting on your hands, waiting for the day to become the night and it becomes writing time. Similarly, if you are a morning writer, you could have ideas you want to work with, but be forced to wait until the next day to write again.

Experiment with breaking your pattern. If you find yourself staring into space, pull out a sheet of paper. Write anything and see what happens. Who cares if it's the middle of the day? You may not be in the mood. You may not even get anything done, but at least perform the experiment. See what happens when you do things different. You might find out that any time of day is equally useful. You may find out that you have a completely different writing style when the sun is out. If it fails, you always have your pattern to fall back on. But in doingg this, you may just find out that there is more to you as a writer than you may have thought.

No matter what happens, though, remember to keep writing. It is a habit, one you shouldn't break. If you are unproductive in the afternoon, make sure you still do your regular writing at night.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Esoteric Material

Most people have at least one thing they love a whole lot. Consider yours. How much time have you spent learning about it, keeping up to date with all the latest news? How much more do you know about it than all of your friends? Most likely, it's pretty significant.

Have you ever made a joke about that subject? I bet it fell flat. Have you ever told a story about that subject that put everybody to sleep? If so, then don't feel too bad. Nobody understood you because you're speaking a different language.

The deeper you go into a subject, the more specialized words you use and the more very specific concepts you have to deal with. Anybody who hasn't gone as far as you have literally doesn't understand what you're talking about because they have never come across those concepts or words.

When you have an esoteric subject, you have to remember to break it down. Either give the reader a crash course in the material or reword the material so that common people can understand.

Consider Karl Marx. He is a smart guy, but you definitely need a map while reading his work. If you read his thoughts on the idea of fetishism, you might be able to figure out what he's getting at, but it won't be easy. If you give somebody a crash course in thhe material, you would explain to them how in general, what you see is what you get. However, some things we grant supernatural powers over us. We believe that a rabbit's foot is lucky and that Nike shoes make us run faster, but they don't. If you wanted to break this down into something that anyone can understand, then all you have to say is, "no matter what the commercials say, there is no car that will get you laid."

The same thing is true for any esoteric subject, whether it be quantum physics or martial arts. Break it down into a form everyone can understand. That will allow you to talk about anything and the audience can learn about anything.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Showing and Telling

Perhaps the most common axiom to writing is "show, don't tell." I have always had a great amount of trouble with this saying, largely because it doesn't make any sense.

If you've never thought about it before, then consider this. You have a character who is very nervous and you write, "He was nervous." This is a problem because you are telling us he is nervous. Instead, you should show us that he is nervous with a sentence like, "His body was shaking and sweating uncontrollably."

Now, this is where the general advice goes. Instead of telling us how somebody felt, you painted a picture that showed us how he felt. This is also where the problems begin.

Pay attention to the showing sentence. It is a statement. Every statement is a telling. In that sentence, I am telling you that he was sweating. I am telling you that he is shaking. It may be more descriptive, but it is still telling.

The problem is that this advice is recursive. Every sentence you write can be made more descriptive or more artistic. Eventually, you could take a sentence as simple as "He was nervous" and turn it into a whole chapter.

Look at writing in general. It is storytelling. 'Tell' is right there in the name. How do we ask for it? "Tell me a story." How do we offer it? "Let me tell you something." Everything we do is telling. The only way we can really show something is to use pictures without words.

Still, though, there is a truth to the matter. We have all read things that were so plain and boring that we couldn't get interested in it at all. Rewriting the sentences to add more description can help that problem. So if it is incorrect to say "show, don't tell", then what is correct?

I would say that the more accurate axiom is "use the proper amount of focus." Of course, that means nothing if you don't know the nuances of focus. The short version of that is to focus on the passage of time. The closer you focus in on something, the slower it moves. A bullet is very fast, and if you want to show that, use a sentence like, "he pulled the trigger and I was shot." If you want to show time slowing down as you are facing your own mortality, then you spend two pages describing every single thing that happens from the moment the trigger starts to be pulled and the time the bullet finally lodges itself inside your chest.

Every line you write will tell. Just tell people the stuff that matters to your story.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Win the Internal Argument

Any statement can be argued. If you response to that was , "oh yeah?", then you just proved my point and you're also kind of an ass.

The important point to this is that any time you make a statement, you should be prepared to argue it. Statements are generally broken up into two categories: facts and opinions. Essentially, they are the same thing. The only difference is how well they can be argued.

A fact is a statement with so much evidence to support it that it is not argued (except by outrageous zealots). An opinion is a statement that doesn't have enough evidence to call it a fact.

In academic writings, we find many a footnote in text. These are counterarguments. Every time a person makes a factual statement, they include where the fact can be verified to counter a potential argument. Going further back to high school, the standard 5-paragraph essay contains a statement, an argument, and a counter to that argument.

The point of arguing is to find the truth. In fact, any time you start an argument, you can use the question, "is that true?" If you argue with people enough, or if enough people argue with you, you will start asking that question every time you make a statement. This is a good thing.

When you start arguing with yourself, that is a super-powered BS filter. If you can win the internal argument for every statement you make, you will be sure to have the strongest work possible.

Although this advice is best-used by essayists, it holds true for any form of writing. If you are writing a novel and you write, He knew the night would be dangerous, you can still ask, "is that true?" It can go along nicely with the what-if game to generate ideas, but it can also make sure that your characters are acting like they should and that the world around them is proper.

One final note of advice: don't show your internal argument. If you make a claim, which is argued, defended, argued again, defended again, and so on several times, you should just get rid of your original argument. Nothing that will spawn that much controversy is polished enough to be shared. Once you reach a conclusion with yourself about what is true, just write that. Nobody needs to know what went on behind the scenes to come to that truth.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Rewrite It

In the past, I've talked about revising and editing and some techniques for each of them. In both of these, though, there is one technique that deserves being highlighted: rewriting.

In revision, I think that rewriting is a primary tool. When you are still in the process of creating your world and shaping your story, trying to modify your existing text is often more of a hindrance than a benefit. Ultimately, you either have to modify so much of the sentence that you end up rewriting it, or you just trash what you have from the start and try again.

In editing though, rewriting is done far less. Editing is the polishing and finishing of a work, so it is assumed that the sentences are just fine and shouldn't be touched. Of course, that's just plain fallacy. Editing requires a lot of rewriting because previous to this phase, the sentences cared more about telling the story than making it sound pretty.

I've taken several editing tests before. The point of the test is to see if I know all of the grammar rules to correct the sentences shown to me. Of course, these sentences have been written incredibly awkwardly to fit in some obscure grammar rule. I hate these tests with a passion. They are given under false pretenses. If I was a real editor, I would look at a sentence so horribly put together and just rewrite it.

When you edit your own work, remember that if you aren't sure what to do, or if you just can't make it sound right, your safest bet is to just delete the sentence and rewrite it.

Say What You're Trying to Say

My friends regularly come to me to find the right words. "Kevin," they would say, "what's that feeling where you want to put somebody's face through a wall, but you're in public, so you know you have to restrain yourself?"

"That would be incensed," I told them. Then they thanked me and went along their merry way. That's all well and good, but they are not quite sure what they want.

They would tell me, "I'm looking for a way to tell people that this poet wasn't actually happy in this poem."

"Ok," I say, "tell me what you're trying to say."

Then they take a breath and say, "This poem sounds like it is about a child wanting to play and have fun, but the poet was actually sick and kept indoors, and this poem is about him feeling a longing to be in the world."

At this point, I smile and tell them, "Ok, say that."

This is when those same friends smack their foreheads and I tell them they owe me fifty bucks for the advice. Of course, what makes me laugh is when I use this exact method several times on the same person.

But ultimately, this is the best advice you can get when you don't know how to say something. Tell me what you're trying to say, then say it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Something Happens

When people ask me what kind of writing I like to read, I always have the same answer: good. So what makes writing good? It's interesting. What constitutes interesting writing? It's not boring.

Suffice it to say that I'm kind of a dick when it comes to this question. But I have been trying to put my finger on what I really look for. Ultimately, there is one principle I have found that links all the things I like: something happens.

'Something happens' is also pretty vague, but it's the only way to encapsulate the principle. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and any other kind of writing all need to have something happen. It can be a conversation, a fight, a walk, a halt, or a realization. A simple recitation of facts is just not good enough. To use an example from the past, the writing I hate more than anything else is when a novel spends two pages describing a room or a person's clothing. Nothing is happening during those pages. Imagine if you were watching a movie, you see the main character burst into a room, and then spend 30 seconds standing still, looking at the various objects on the walls. It would be total garbage and you wouldn't stand for it. I don't stand for it in writing of any kind.

This rule is especially important for serial work. If you are writing a comic strip, for example, you need to make sure that something happens in every installment. It can be any of the examples I mentioned earlier, but the important thing is that at the end of it, the state of things are different than they were in the previous strip.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What Isn't About Writing?

In talking about this blog, I've made the comment that I could turn any subject into a post on writing. Though I say it in jest, it's probably true. This can only mean one of two things. Either I am an excellent BSer, or everything actually is related to writing.

I like to believe that it is the latter option. After all, what is writing? It is either a record of things humans have done or it is a story meant to sound like such a record. So if writing is a record of humanity, then any subject about people is automatically related to writing.

Humanity is more than just humans. Humanity is also about human actions. Subjects like relationships, building things, doing jobs, all are part of human existence, and thus are related to writing.

But humanity is even more than that. Humanity is a lens through which we see the world. When we see two animals together, say a pair of cats, and we see them running around, playing together, eating from the same dish, sleeping next to each other, we view them through a human lens. Those cats affect us because we see the humanity in them. They have feelings, relationships, and desires, just like us. So since everything we see is through a lens of humanity, that means that everything can be tied back to writing, since it is a record of humanity.

So, to all writers, I have a bit of advice: take a step back, polish off your lens, and really look around. Look at all the things that you don't pay attention to. Look at the things that you always see, but never think about. Those are the things nobody talks about. Those are the wells full of untapped ideas that will give you all sorts of material to work with. And, failing that, ask your friend to give you a subject that isn't about writing, and then make it about writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Believing Game

The believing game is an exercise I first learned about from an essay by Peter Elbow. Where the doubting game is an exercise to find doubt, the goal of the believing game is to find truth. In the essay, Elbow says that we should look for any grains of truth in what we see.

I have to admit that the first time I read the essay, I hated it. Everything I read either sounded painfully obvious or patently absurd. Though I largely dismissed it, I couldn't get it out of my head. It was not for several months before I had a realization.

The war cry of doubters is "you can't prove that's true." The war cry of believers is "you can't prove that's not true."

Consider things like spiritual healing. Whether it be prayer, crystals, herbs, massage, or anything else, there is no proof this stuff works. And yet, the people who believe in it seem to do well. They are in better moods, get more energy, and can often fight off illnesses that other people couldn't. There are ethereal forces that we can neither prove nor disprove. Those who doubt are called cynics. Those who believe are faithful.

Essentially, those with faith are the opposites of cynics. They have hope. They look for the best. If they have an opportunity to try something, they'll go for it. If somebody questions them, they respond, "why not?" Believers come in all shapes and sizes (which should not come as much of a surprise). Some people are pie in the sky, others try to be as rational as they can and use faith to fill in the blanks.

Ultimately, people come down as either cynics or faithfuls. As such, they play their respective games. Whichever one you happen to be, you will likely never be able to comprehend how the mind of the other one works. I wish I could say that this post and the previous one will help in some way, but from my own experiences, you can never understand what goes through their heads until you have had it go through yours. With any luck, though, you can at least sound like you know what you're talking about and create realistic characters, even if you still can't figure out why they act the way they do.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Doubting Game

The doubting game is what we are trained to play in school. The shorter name for it is skepticism, and its war cry is, "you can't prove that's true."

Skeptics are down-to-earth, planners, scientists, doubters. If you don't have proof that something will work, there's no reason to think it will.

When it comes to being a writer, skepticism can be a useful tool. Since you get to create your own world, you can make sure that you know absolutely every detail, which will allow you to decide what is and isn't possible. When you doubt everything you come up with, it will force you to find the proof that will show that everything works.

In terms of characters, a skeptic can be a loudmouth or the strong and silent type. The loudmouth is one who is searching for truth actively. If they question everything they hear, it shows their youth and ignorance. The strong, silent skeptic are also questioning everything, but it is internal. They are at a different level, where unless they need to denounce something, they will keep their thoughts to themselves.

The reasons a character is a skeptic are as varied as the kinds of skeptical characters that are possible. Perhaps one is fascinated with the world around them. Maybe one is comforted by provable facts. Somebody could have been burned by not being skeptical in the past. Although skepticism is the same thing in any character, the reasons that made it happen will shape the character far more than this one character trait.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Joy of Doing

Why do you write? What do you want from it? There is no one answer. Every person will generally have a combination of reasons. However, if you want to be a writer to get rich, I will highly recommend putting down the pen and choosing a different field.

There can be some great glamor in writing. You get paid for being creative. You get fans of your work who get excited just to be in your presence. But that is not why you should write. For one thing, it is very unlikely it will happen.

The writing market is supersaturated. Everybody thinks they can write. Everybody thinks they will make it big and live the sweet life. That is just not going to happen. You are an artist and the simple fact is that there is never much money in the arts.

Ultimately, you should be writing because you love doing it. You should feel joy from the parts of writing. Be excited to come up with new ideas, feel brilliant when you figure out a path that characters take which will tie up all the loose ends, feel like a craftsman when you revise and edit your work into exactly what you want.

If you do not feel the joy of doing your art, then you are wasting your time. That joy is the greatest reward you will get from writing. Without it, all you've got is a shell.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Accept Your Failure

There are a lot of similarities among arts. I think there is a lot one can learn by finding those principles, those things that always ring true. One of them I have found both in writing and in music.

For a musician, your job application is an audition. Resumes and interviews are largely worthless. Skill matters more than anything else, so you play for a couple of judges and show off those skills. Writing is the same way. A resume might show that you have been published in the past, but it is truly your skill, as seen in a portfolio, that matters most.

If you talk with enough musicians, you will find out that everybody has an audition story. One person didn't warm up enough, so they were still stiff. Another person warmed up too much and was starting to lose steam when they got in front of the judges. Stories can soon get increasingly ridiculous (spontaneous instrument failure, random illness, etc.), but everybody agrees on one thing: sometimes you just have a bad audition. It was nobody's fault. You were prepared, you were warmed up well, everything was in order, but something just didn't click.

Writing is the same way. You have your hits and you have your misses. In terms of a portfolio, you have the luxury of preparing it carefully beforehand, but even still, sometimes it just doesn't go right. Sometimes your reviewer/interviewer just doesn't like it. They question you and your work and you just don't know what to say. You are a combination of shocked, scared, and offended and it just paralyzes you. Similarly, if you are a regular writer, sometimes you just don't have your usual sparkle or zazz. And maybe one day you turn in what you've written and your shocked that you made it because it is so below your standards.

Whether you're a musician or a writer, the same thing is true. Tough luck. These things happen. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get over it. Don't worry about blame. Don't beat yourself up. Don't lose your heart or your confidence. Sometimes you just have a bad audition. Accept your failure and move on to your next thing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Didn't Care or Wasn't Aware

When somebody has a problem, there are two possible reasons for it. Either he didn't care wasn't aware. This applies both to characters and to writers, though it affects them differently.

Consider your characters. None of them are perfect; that's what makes them human. How are they imperfect? What do they do wrong? Why don't they fix it? A person who isn't aware of their problems can be helped, though ironically rarely are. People feel bad about pointing out people's problems, so they instead choose to put up with those problems and badmouth them behind their back.

Characters who don't care about their problems are aware of them, but either don't think they're a big deal or think that everybody else needs to chill out and deal with it. These characters are stronger because they have more knowledge and a lot of confidence (people who aren't aware are moreso in a state of blissful ignorance).

Being aware of these two kinds of people will help greatly in making your characters real. For as similar as they are in their actions, they couldn't be more different in the reasons why. Know why your characters do what they do, and you will always be sure what they will do next.

Writers, also being people, also have problems, and also split between not knowing and not caring. However, if you are writing with the intent of sharing it with others, you cannot afford the luxury of not knowing or not caring about your problems. No matter what the reason, the fact remains that if you have problems in your writing, you need to fix them.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sound Like You Know What You're Talking About

As an experienced and professional BSer, I've always lived by the the slogan, "You don't need to know what you're talking about. You just need to sound like you know what you're talking about." This was as true for writing as it was for life. But as I grew up, gained some experience, and learned some lessons, I realized I was wrong. Sure, you can BS your way almost anywhere in real life, but in writing, it's not gonna fly.

Speech is fast, personal, and live. Writing is planned, deliberate, and permanent. You can fast talk somebody into agreeing with some stupid ideas, but if you give them everything you said in writing, they would tear it apart and laugh in your face.

I have most felt this when it comes to writing about people of different origins. Only Chinese people can write about growing up Chinese. Only people from New York can tell a story about living in New York. Only children of immigrant parents can write about what it was like being a child of immigrant parents. Unless you have lived it, you cannot know it. And if you cannot know it, you cannot write it properly.

Recently, I was thinking about my old bit of wisdom, and I realized it was right. I am not black and can never understand what it is like to live as a black person. But you know what? I've spent a whole lot of time with black people, talked with them, learned their stories, studied their mannerisms. And if I wanted to, I could write a story with a black character.

I don't need to know what it is like to be black, but I do need to sound like I know it. Because if I portray the picture well enough, then the people who understand will relate to it and add their own feelings and experiences to gain more from it.

It's ok to sound like you know what you're talking about. Just realize that doing so still requiures effort.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writing Exercise - Blank Mad Libs

Mad Libs can be a fun game to play with friends, but it can hardly be considered writing. However, there is a way to turn it into writing.

Consider the basic Mad Lib. It is a piece of text, generally a mundane story, with 20 or so random words removed. In its place is a blank space, with the part of speech that word is. Then you fill in the blank with a word of the same part of speech.

In the basic Mad Lib, you have too little freedom to do anything creative. But try stretching the premise further. Instead of 20 words, try 40 words. Try 60, 80, and keep going up. Eventually, you will reach the point of having a blank Mad Lib.

Now you have a sheet of paper filled with blank lines and a whole lot of parts of speech under them. Start filling in those blanks. This will give you a great deal of freedom, but with a preset structure that can give you a sense of stability.

This exercise will give you some insight on sentence structure. Figure out what patterns feel good to you and what ones are unpleasant. Also, if you break down your own sentences into parts of speech, you will see what patterns you favor and how to add some spice and variety. The more you know, the stronger you will be.

The First 100 Strips

These days, when people make their own comics, they usually post every strip they make, starting from the beginning. It can be very interesting to see a comic at its beginnings, get to know the characters, and see how they grow and evolve.

The problem with this is that the beginning installments of a comic are usually bad. These cartoonists don't know their characters very well and they don't know their surroundings very well. Often times, they are also just learning how to draw and write. As such, the art is usually lacking and the writing is so-so. This is normal, though. In general, the first 100 strips are considered practice. It is the time where the creator learns what they're trying to create and how to execute it.

Although these first 100 are practice, people still want advice on their work. I think that this is counterproductive. This practice period is when the creator shapes their own work and shapes themselves. When other people give advice, they are trying to fix something that isn't broken. The point of advice is to make the comic become what it is trying to be. But in the practice period, the creators themselves don't know what their comic is trying to be, so it will give no help.

The same thing is true for a writer of any kind. Advice is a great thing. A good reader and a good critic will make you better at what you do. But, until you know what you are trying to do, advice can only help so much. Write 100 pieces. They can be anything - poetry, short story, novel, essay, or anything else. When you've done that, you will have a grasp of what you are trying to do with your writing, and other people will help you reach your goals with your advice.

Shape yourself before you ask others to shape you.

Monday, August 10, 2009

From Mad Libs to Manuscripts

Within writing, there is a full spectrum of freedom. In the ultimate level of restriction, we have Mad Libs, where you are allowed to pick a handful of words to fill in a document, provided they are the proper part of speech. The beauty of Mad Libs is that no matter how you write them, you get something good. This comes at the cost of having extremely little input on what you actually get to write.

On the other side of the spectrum is the manuscript. Properly, it is any piece of writing that you create with no guidelines or requirements. You now have absolute freedom to create anything you want, the cost of this being the difficulty and risk of failure.

Between these two extremes, there are a number of possibilities for writers. Writing for a scientific journal will require extremely strict guidelines, almost to the point of being Mad Libs. Academic essays are a little looser; they can have a rigid 5-paragraph style or they can be more free-form, as long as they have a thesis, conclusion, and enough meat between them. A story for Reader's Digest can be written any way you want, as long as it has the classic 3 acts and comes with a happy ending.

Different people have different comfort levels. The level of comfort you want (or the level of discomfort you can handle) is the level that you should write at.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I mentioned in my last post that a standard 24-hour day is usually split into three parts of 8, one for work, sleep, and free time. This isn't generally the case, though. Everybody has different schedules. Some people aren't working a full 40 hours a week. Some people only sleep 6 hours a night. These discrepancies will obviously change the ratios, but let's pretend for a moment that all people had a simple 8/8/8 split to make this easier.

If you have a day job, you can't alter those hours. You have to be there for 8 hours a day, Monday through Friday. Sleep is needed for matters of health. You need 8 hours a day. Now, you can split it up into multiple sessions or just move it into other times of the day, but no matter what, you're going to be getting 8 hours.

Since work and sleep are not negotiable, that means the only wiggle room you have in your day is that 8 hours of free time. Assuming you aren't writing as a full-time job, that means you still have 8 hours a day to write, right? Of course not. Everything that happens in life that isn't working or sleeping comes out of your 8 hours of free time. Doing laundry, making and eating food, buying groceries, traveling to and from work, getting ready for bed, and lying in bed waiting to fall asleep, all of these things come out of those 8 hours.

All of a sudden, maybe you only have 4 hours a day to write. That's not too bad, is it? No. You could get a lot done in 4 hours. The problem is that after a long day at work, you want to sit on the couch, watch TV, put in a movie, or play some video games. All of a sudden, those 4 hours become zero and it's time to go to bed.

Regardless of of how your 24 hours are actually split, the fact still remains that sleep and work are non-negotiable. That means that every other thing you do comes out of your free time. It is the most precious commodity you have. If you truly wish to write, then put down the remote, controller, or beer can, pick up your pen, pencil, or keyboard, and write something.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

24 Hours, However You Use Them

People play a lot of mental tricks on themselves to make time disappear. Sometimes the day just flies by. Sometimes you sleep at strange hours. Sometimes things just come up. Whatever the reason, they're all crap.

No matter how you slice it, there are 24 hours a day, every day. Not a minute goes by that you can't account for. If time seems to disappear, then start accounting for where it goes.

Suppose you write at night. One night, you get really into what you're working on, so instead of going to bed at midnight, you stay up until 5 AM, at which point you go to sleep. You wake up at 8 AM and have to go to work. As soon as you get home, you crash in bed for five hours. When you wake up, it is now the evening and you only have a few hours before it's your usual bedtime again.

In this example, the normal reaction is to say that the day disappeared, or that you spent all day sleeping. This is just a misconception and a misaccounting of time. Despite the nontraditional use of time, all the hours can be accounted for. From midnight to midnight, there was 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of work, and 8 hours of free time. Those sets of eight simply weren't all collected. It became 5 hours free time (spent writing), 3 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 5 hours sleep, and 3 hours free time. It still adds up the same.

The point of this is to tell you to be aware of your time. No day ever disappears, even if it can feel that way. If you ever feel like you're out of time, realize that you may have simply reallocated hours. And if you ever need more time than you have, you can reallocate hours from the next day (just know that you're going to pay for it later).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Stay Professional

It is way too easy to share information about yourself. Between Twitter, blogs, Facebook (perhaps MySpace), and message boards, people can learn pretty much anything about you. And if you're not careful, people will learn way too much.

This is by no means a new subject to talk about. However, it is still one that needs to be considered. At first, I saw people being disturbingly familiar or coldly professional. Half the people were writing things on a public forum to their close personal friends and not realizing that anybody can see it. The other half of these people never talked about anything but official aspects of their professional lives.

Nowadays, those two stereotypes have softened, but are still there. Some people use their twitter for inside jokes; others only use it to link to things they've read or seen. Although this may be better, it isn't good enough.

If you are a professional, loosen up. Share something personal, even if it is a random musing. People don't want to listen to a person talking about their work all the time. Humanize yourself and you will find that more people will care about you and what you have to say.

If you are already loosened up, consider not being so loose. Everybody loves a friendly, outgoing person, but there is such a thing as too much. Dave Kellett has made the comment that when he writes about himself online, he uses the Party Dave persona. This is the Dave that you would meet if you were at a party. He'll tell you a story, tell you a joke. He could be meaningful or silly, but it's all within a boundary. Nothing gets too personal, too depressing, too crude, nor does he get too stiff or professional.

When you write about yourself, don't fake it. If you aren't acting like yourself, people will know you're being phoney. You should always write honestly and from the heart. Just remember who could be reading your words (everybody).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Be Discriminate

As a writer you should be deliberate; you should make sure that everything you do is for a reason. Along with that, you should also be discriminate; you should care about everything you do and place the proper attention on each aspect of your writing.

One of the aspects of writing I mentioned was the use of soft and hard sounds. The is a significant aspect, but its significance depends on the particular piece of writing. For example, if you are writing a technical manual (e.g. how to operate your new fax machine), one could say that it can be completely ignored. I would say that it only deserves enough attention to not make readers trip over themselves when reading.

If you are writing a novel, hard and soft sounds become more important. You want to make your readers feel what you are saying and the right combination can create a meaningful impact. However, it is not the most important aspect to writing a novel, so it shouldn't get top priority. It should be paid attention to, but not priarily focused on.

If you are writing a speech, use of hard and soft sounds are critical. Hard sounds are powerful, awakening, empowering. They make people know when you are being serious. Soft sounds are flowing and moving. They make people follow along and they set people up for a punch. However, too many hard sounds are difficult to say and difficult to process. Too many soft sounds are boring and slippery. It is very important that you use them in such a manner that it captivates the audience.

So be discriminate. Make sure that every aspect of writing is getting the appropriate level of attention for the particular form of writing you are doing.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Be Deliberate

It really bothers me when people do something "to be different". That is no reason to do anything. For one thing, you probably aren't being different; you're probably using a style from somebody you haven't heard of. More importantly, you're wasting precious resources.

There are so many aspects of writing. Specific meaning, rise and fall of tones, use of soft and hard sounds, lengths of sentences, rhythm of sentences, all of these and countless more each affect how the audience will receive your writing.

When you write, you should be deliberate with your words. Make each one do as much as it can. If you choose empty words, you will either use several times as many words as you need to express yourself or you will not be as clear as you could.

This principle is crucial in prose writing because it is completely unregulated. When you look into other forms of writing, they are self-evident. Poetry is about capturing the essence of a scene with as few words as possible. The quintessential form of poetry is the haiku, which comes with self-imposed limitation. Haiku is so iconic because from the great limitation comes great creation. People are forced to be masterfully precise, forced to be deliberate with every decision, and the work shines because of it.

Treat all of your writing like haiku. Force yourself to be masterfully precise. If you do, then people will recognize your work as masterful. If you fail, you're still probably doing pretty darn good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Eliminate the Pedestal

One of the most damaging things you can do in the writing community is put other people on a pedestal. If you go up to people and tell them that you don't deserve to be in their presence, they just might believe you.

The point of a community is that the people in it are equals. They all share the same goals, all strive to achieve them, all have our highs and lows. More importantly, we're all human beings. We sleep, eat, get sick, and get better.

Some people might be further along than you are. Some people might do work that you think is better than your own. That's just fine. You should respect those people and where they are. Just don't elevate them to the status of gods. If you carry yourself like a professional, you just might find that other people in the community will see you that way too.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Painful Love or Loveless Pain

There is a saying that if you love your job, you'll never work a day in your life. While I do believe it's true, I also have never found a job that was a true easy street. No matter what you do for work, you're going to have to work for it. The important question is, what kind of work do you want to do?

For artists (like writers), the big divide is whether your job is to make art or make money. Both come with their rewards and drawbacks. If you choose to be a professional artist, then there will be a great deal of struggle trying to make money off of it. It is a slow start and a long crawl to get anywhere. After that, if you can make it, you will have to deal with deadlines and expectations and audience demands. The upshot is that you are doing what you love and creating something that you're proud of. For as much pain as you have to go through, it is a labor of love.

The other side of the coin is doing a job for the sole purpose of making money. Of course, this is not necessarily an easier life path. You still have to start at the bottom of the totem pole, claw your way up, and deal with deadlines and expectations. The nice thing is that you will be making a lot of money and will be able to afford the finer things in life. The drawback is that your work is an alien part of your life, so you will spend a large chunk of your time doing something you don't care about.

Personally, I would choose the painful love of trying to be a writer as a profession than the loveless pain of doing a job I don't care about.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Don't Overthink

There is no denying that human beings are complicated. We all have several layers, each one with its own set of feelings and beliefs. Sometimes those feelings are at odds with each other. In writing, it serves as a great tool for creating internal tension and conflict.

When you are creating a character, it is useful to know all of that character's layers. You will be able to give them the most realistic actions and decisions. The problem with this is that you can easily get too wrapped up in what your characters are thinking. This will make you less productive and your writing will suffer.

Don't overthink with your characters. When people need to make decisions, they often don't think things through. People choose whatever they want the most at the time. If a man is offered some ice cream and he is really in the mood for it, he's going to eat that ice cream. It doesn't matter that he is overweight and is at risk for diabetes. If, however, that character is not in the mood for ice cream, then they won't take it.

Very few people weigh every single factor on each side of a decision. Whatever pulls them the strongest wins. Now, I know it is far easier said than done, but let me sum it up in a single piece of advice. Instead of asking yourself what you would do in that situation or what you would do if you were that character, just ask yourself what that character really wants. Then have them do it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Pick the Proper Format

In the past, I've made a point that you should pick a style of writing that suits you. I still stand by this, but need to add an addendum. Within a style of writing, you need to pick the formal that suits your story.

As a writer, I have picked the style of comics. However, the stories I write are very different from each other. My comic strip works best as a webcomic. It is humorous, short, and unending. Every update is satisfying by itself, so any one will make a good first comic to a reader of my strip. There also is no real story to it, just a premise. Although there are occasional story arcs, they are still finite stories in an infinite realm.

Another project I have is about citizens of a city being attacked and how they respond to those attacks. It has a beginning and an end, both set in stone. Although it will be several chapters long, it is a finite story in a finite realm. It would not work well as webcomic, where not every page would make a good first impression, nor could it last indefinitely, which would make the website almost useless once the story finishes.

A third project is a story about a creepy cult and the small group of normal people trying to resist it. Although there is a main story, the setting is potentially infinite, allowing for countless stories to be made (and rendering the graphic novel a useless option). However, since it would be best for each story to be told at once, the page-a-day format of webcomics would not work. Therefore, the proper format would be a comic book (A.K.A. trade paperback).

Much as a writer must pick the style that allows them to best communicate, so must they also pick a format that allows their story to best be told.

Being Different

I think it's ironic that people are harassed for being different. They're told they are wrong. They need to be corrected and there are plenty of people who are more than happy to offer those corrections.

The irony is that it is the person who is different that has a chance of being recognized. Once you get recognized, that will start the cycle of self-reinforcing fame, which will make you special and great and loved. Then everybody who criticized you will be singing your praises for being different in a good way.

The large majority of people who give you advice (especially unsolicited advice) aren't trying to make you better; they're trying to make you average. They want you to look and sound like everybody else does. That's safe and comfortable and already proven to be good. And to add more irony, that is the last thing you want.

I've said it before and I will say it again. The worst thing you can possibly be is average. If you can't be the absolute best, be the absolute worst. The important thing is that you're being different (and that you're being you).